Washington Insider - Thursday

Congress Considers Return to Earmarks

Here's a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN's well-placed observer.

US Chamber Of Commerce to Add Their Voice in NAFTA Debate

The U.S. needs to stay engaged on trade and avoid missteps in the NAFTA 2.0 process will be one of the messages delivered today by U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue as he presents the group's annual State of American Business.

"The American economy has taken several big steps forward with regulatory relief and tax reform, and the administration deserves lots of credit. But a wrong move on NAFTA would send us five steps back," Donohue will say, according to excerpts of his remarks released ahead of the speech. "The bottom line is growth will be weakened, not strengthened or sustained, if we pull back from trade." Long a big backer of free trade agreements, the Chamber has also been openly critical of the approach taken by the Trump administration.

Sen. Grassley: Biofuel policy situation in hands of oil/biofuel industry

Resolution of differences over U.S. biofuel policy will have to be handled by the U.S. oil and biofuels industry as talks at the lawmaker level have been unsuccessful, according to Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. After a White House meeting last month with senators representing the oil-refining industry, President Donald Trump called on those lawmakers to work with those backing biofuels to come up with a "win-win" solution to the differing views. Grassley told reporters Tuesday that the effort between the two sides had basically broken down. He and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, met with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, the lawmaker leading the change from the oil-refining industry side, and advised him that his proposal to cap prices for Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs) at 10 cents each was a non-starter.

"The industry tells us that such a cap on RINs would be just catastrophic to ethanol, and I can't go beyond that," Grassley said. "There's a pretty unanimous feeling among ethanol industry that that would be just a no-go. Sen. Ernst and I expressed that to Cruz." Caught in the middle of the situation is the nomination of Bill Northey of Iowa to be a key USDA undersecretary. Cruz placed a hold on his nomination and so far has not indicated that he will lift the block. Grassley indicated the hold on Northey's nomination would need to be addressed in some other way, but he did not say how.

Washington Insider: Congress Considers Return to Earmarks

In a surprising development, momentum is building in Congress to revive the use of earmarks after President Trump endorsed the idea on Tuesday, The Hill reported this week.

No matter what, they won't call them earmarks: lawmakers say they're in favor of "congressionally directed spending." That would be a significant change in attitudes on Capitol hill, and conservatives are divided on whether to reverse the ban, which has been in place since Republicans took over the House majority after the 2010 midterm elections.

Conservative leaders like House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, R-N.C., reject the idea—but, even they sound open to a return to earmarks ahead of House Rules Committee hearings next week.

"I don't know that I'm opposed to it," Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., a Freedom Caucus member, told The Hill. "We're spending more money than ever and it's still going out, but it doesn't seem to come to my district."

If earmarks were restored, "I can be more of a spokesman for the people in Tennessee who need it," DesJarlais continued. "There is an overpass in Rutherford County that we need to get funding for. We've got things up in Nashville, the Percy Priest Reservoir … so yeah, I would like to have a better voice."

"I don't know if earmarks is the answer. I've never had them, so I don't know if it's good or not."

Other conservatives also expressed openness to allowing earmarks or something similar, saying that ensuring money for specific projects would give the legislative branch more power.

Trump said at a White House meeting with roughly two dozen lawmakers on Tuesday that Congress should consider allowing earmarks again. He suggested that doing so would allow Congress to function better, lamenting that the "levels of hatred" among Republicans and Democrats are "out of control."

"Maybe we should think about it," Trump said. "Maybe all of you should think about going back to a form of earmarks. You should do it."

"We have to put better controls because it got a little out of hand, but that brings people together," Trump added.

House Republicans came close to reinstating earmarks days after Trump won the presidency in 2016. Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., persuaded his conference to postpone a vote on returning earmarks, reminding them that Trump had just won the election on a promise to "drain the swamp."

But a little over a year later, Republicans are trying again.

The first Rules Committee hearing on Jan. 17 will feature testimony from members of both parties to discuss earmarks, while subject matter experts will headline the second hearing the following day.

House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, stressed that any return to spending that resembles earmarks would include reforms.

"The bottom line is we are trying to create a new way. We are not going back to earmarks. Those were dead eight years ago," Sessions told The Hill.

"What we're going to do is allow a meritorious-based system where people can see this as in the best interest, on a meritorious basis, for programs."

"Member-directed resources is an important part in making sure you're targeting money where it needs to go," Rep. David Joyce, R., Ohio, told The Hill. "People should put their names on this and make it transparent so everyone gets to see what you're putting your name to."

Congressional leaders once had the power to use earmarks as a way to corral the necessary votes to pass legislation. They would dangle the promise of an earmark in an upcoming spending bill in exchange for a lawmaker's vote on legislation.

Some members have argued in recent years that the lack of earmarks has contributed to the gridlock in Congress.

"I think we've just given up so much power to the executive branch, number one. Then number two, you've lost a legislative tool that's useful," said Rep. Tom Cole R-Okla., a senior member of both the Rules and Appropriations panels.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., another top appropriator, fist-pumped in excitement when he learned that Trump's comments on Tuesday were publicly televised.

House Republicans led by then-Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, pushed for the earmark ban following acknowledgments by both parties that some projects had been abused.

The infamous "bridge to nowhere" — a proposed $400 million project to construct a bridge between the city of Ketchikan, Alaska, and a nearby island with an airport — further drew nationwide derision around the same time as a case of a kickback for an earmark came to light and paved the way for banning earmarks.

Cole acknowledged reinstating earmarks in an election year would be tough and stressed that any effort should be bipartisan.

"I think anytime you start the process, that's good. And I applaud the effort. But I recognize how difficult it's going to be in an election year," Cole said.

Earmarks, by any name, help Congress pass appropriations bills many don't like—so, appropriators tend to like them, while budget hawks don't. Still, this is a fight producers should watch as it gets underway in the near future, Washington Insider believes.

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